Racial politics are only likely to grow worse.

Photographer: Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

So Much For Post-Racial America

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Racial conflict has not abated in the Barack Obama era. It has intensified. Obama's temporary reprieve for undocumented immigrants has just ratcheted up the tension another notch. The usual demagogues did the usual things, with Representatives Steve King and Michele Bachmann heading to the Mexican border because, well, why not?  

But perhaps the most telling comment was made a few days ago by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. A graduate of Yale Law School, Kobach has been an intellectual leader of both anti-immigration efforts -- he advised Arizona on its SB 1070 anti-immigrant law that the Supreme Court invalidated in 2012 -- and the expansion of state laws to restrict the franchise. The former effort was targeted at immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The latter disproportionately affects voters who are racial minorities.

As policy, immigration and election law are distinct. But the respective clampdowns are borne of similar anxieties. On his radio show, Kobach made the link explicit, expressing concern over "the long term strategy of, first of all, replacing American voters with illegal aliens, recently legalized, who then become U.S. citizens." (Thus recent "U.S. citizens" are illegitimate, unlike the more wholesome, established "American voters.") Like the concept of "anchor babies," who presumably enable lazy immigrants to obtain lots of federal goodies, Kobach offers a variation on Mitt Romney's theme that Obama's appeal to voters comes down to a promise of "free stuff."

Yet Kobach went further when asked by a caller whether a growing and militant Hispanic population might ultimately engage in "ethnic cleansing."

"What protects us in America from any kind of ethnic cleansing is the rule of law, of course," Kobach said. "And the rule of law used to be unassailable, used to be taken for granted in America. And now, of course, we have a President who disregards the law when it suits his interests. And, so, you know, while I normally would answer that by saying, 'Steve, of course we have the rule of law, that could never happen in America,' I wonder what could happen. I still don't think it’s going to happen in America, but I have to admit, that things are, things are strange and they're happening."

So a just-reelected statewide official and influential architect of Republican policy said he is unable to refute a paranoid fantasy that anti-white ethnic cleansing is on the way. Yes, things are strange, and they're happening.

William Faulkner's overworked line "The past is never dead. It's not even past," doesn't give adequate accounting of the nation's progress. Still, it's hardly a surprise that race might prove a durable vexation in a place that all but exterminated one race, enslaved another and established barriers to restrain the ambitions of others. Second-class citizenship, enforced by many states, began to be dismantled only 50 years ago.

The immigration battle, which is strongly influenced by conservative fears of demographic change coupled with liberals' embrace of the "coalition of the ascendant," will outlive Obama's administration. So will the racially-charged fight over Obamacare. Its market-friendly provision of services and subsidies to poor and middle-class uninsured Americans has disproportionately benefited racial minorities. Republicans, who once championed similar policies, responded to it with a fury that, after five years, still burns at peak intensity. Meanwhile, as the nation grows more diverse, only one of the two political parties does as well -- ensuring that race will remain a visible dividing line.

When Obama was elected, many Americans hoped that he would usher race off the political stage and put it to rest. No such luck.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net